The Rogue's Reform
February 2012 (ISBN 0-373-82905-7, Love Inspired Books)
Jerome Everard expected to inherit his wayward uncle's estate. Instead, all has gone to a secret daughter. Only by disproving his young cousin's claim can Jerome regain his rightful property. But instead, he finds himself drawn to her lovely governess, Adele Walcott--a woman who holds the key to all of his uncle's secrets.
Adele's fortune is gone, along with her marriage prospects. Now she is devoted to securing her charge's happiness. When she meets Jerome, she dares to dream of love again. But after learning his true motives, that love comes to a test. Can she forgive his past and reform his heart--to make it hers forever?
"Regina Scott is a first-rate storyteller who knows what her readers want in their romances." --The Huntress Reviews
"A fine start to the Everard Legacy miniseries." -- RT Book Reviews
"Scott skillfully threads an intriguing mystery and plenty of sweet romance together in The Rogue’s Reform, the first, well-crafted installment of her new Everard Legacy miniseries." -- John Charles, Booklist
"There are witty quips and surprising moments that were very well-written and, had I not been trying to be quiet for the people around me, I would have literally laughed out loud. I also like that the women in her stories are not silly damsels, creating more problems that they help solve. . . It was an empowering set of female characters to read. Bravo, Mrs. Scott! By the end of the book, I was chomping at the bit to read the next one!" -- See Lisa Read
Evendale Valley, Cumberland, England, Spring 1805
So that was the enemy's lair.
Jerome Everard reined in at the foot of the graveled drive. Just ahead, Dallsten Manor sat proudly on a rise, the afternoon sun warming the red sandstone towers at either end and glinting off the multipaned windows of the central block. Fields rolled away all around to meet woods still bare from winter. Beside him, the iron gates of the estate lay open, with a stone cottage standing silent guard.
"It looks innocent enough," his brother Richard said on his left, patting the weary horse on the neck.
"Looks can be deceiving," their cousin Vaughn replied on Jerome's right. His hand strayed to the hilt of the sword sheathed along his saddle.
Jerome almost hoped his so-called cousin's governess was peering out a window at that moment. The three of them could look intimidating on the best of days, and their grueling ride from London hadn't helped. Their greatcoats were dusty, their boots splashed with mud. Though Richard was the captain of their prize merchant vessel, his short russet hair, beard and mustache made him resemble nothing so much as a dashing pirate. Under that broad-brimmed hat, Vaughn's white-gold hair, held back in a queue, contrasted with the fathomless dark brown eyes that had made their Everard forebears feared and respected for generations.
And then there was Jerome, with his dark brown hair and icy blue eyes. The thinker, the planner. The schemer, his late uncle would have said. Had said, a few too many times for Jerome's taste.
"We'll find out soon enough," he said. "Remember our purpose-we discover the girl's origins and unmask her. I will not have a fraud taking over the Everard legacy."
"Or give her power over our inheritances," Richard agreed.
A smile played around the corners of Vaughn's mobile mouth. "This could be interesting."
In answer, Jerome urged his horse forward.
No groom came running as they approached the house, but then they hadn't been expected. In fact, Jerome was fairly sure everyone in that fine stone manor had assumed he'd stay in London, take his case to the courts. Certainly his uncle's solicitor had thought as much. Benjamin Caruthers had positively gloated when he'd delivered the news four days ago.
"Though I cannot as yet provide a formal reading of the will, I can relay the last wishes of your uncle, Arthur, Lord Everard," the solicitor had said as Jerome, Richard and Vaughn had gathered in his private office in London. Like everything else about the solicitor, the room was meant to impress. Tall, black bookcases lined the walls, boasting heavy, leather volumes lettered in gold. The squat, claw-footed desk in the center of the room was backed by a massive oil painting of a ship in full sail.
Caruthers was just as overblown, once muscular body grown round with indulgence, mouth wreathed in jowls a bulldog would envy. His old-fashioned powdered wig and lavishly embroidered coat proclaimed him a man of tradition, a man used to dealing with money. Grandfather Everard had insisted that the fellow be retained to handle their affairs, going so far as to include Caruthers and Associates in his will as managers of the Everard legacy. Uncle had found him insufferable. On that one thing, at least, he and Jerome had agreed.
"My dear sirs," Caruthers said with that arrogant smirk, "I shall not attempt to wrap this in clean linen. I am aware of the promises your uncle made to you. You each stand to inherit a considerable sum, and you-" He paused to contemplate Jerome for a moment. "You, my dear Mr. Everard, were expecting to receive the title, lands and considerable fortune associated with the Everard barony."
Heat pulsed through Jerome's body. For seventeen years, since being orphaned and given into his uncle's dubious care at thirteen, he'd been forced to do his uncle's bidding. Today, he became his own man at last.
"I don't much like your use of the word expecting," Vaughn interrupted, crossing his arms over the chest of his black coat. "I am expecting that you will be forthcoming, or perhaps you should not expect to leave this room intact."
"Vaughn," Jerome warned.
Caruthers was nonplussed. "I had heard that you share your uncle's impulsiveness, Mr. Everard. I would have thought you'd learn a lesson from his untimely death. Hasty words have been the downfall of many a gentleman."
Jerome fought down the angry retort, just as he'd fought being saddled with his uncle's care-for-nothing reputation. "Your opinion of our uncle is immaterial. He is dead, killed in a duel, despite what the authorities think. We are his family, with responsibilities to the name Everard. That is the matter under discussion."
"Indeed it is," Caruthers said, leaning back in his chair and squeezing a creak from the leather. "And your expectations will be met, as soon as you fulfill one requirement of the will."
Jerome braced both hands on the hard, wooden arms of the chair where he'd seated himself. "Requirement? My uncle never spoke of requirements."
"Particularly with my brother, here," Richard put in, his own hands clenched at his sides. "There should be no impediments to his taking the title."
Caruthers's smile only grew. "I fear that is not exactly true. According to Lord Everard's will, the three of you have a task to perform before you inherit anything."
Jerome took a deep breath. Trust Uncle to make it difficult. He had never wanted to accept responsibility for his role as baron, and he'd chafed at being reminded of his duties. This, it would seem, was his revenge for all the times Jerome had struggled to keep him in line.
"It is possible my uncle devised some scheme to put Richard and Vaughn to the test for the unentailed property," Jerome told Caruthers, "but he had no control over a sizeable portion of the Everard fortune and the title itself. Those items cannot be put under stipulation."
Caruthers eyed him. "You are quite right, Mr. Everard. Those items have already passed to Lord Everard's heir."
Vaughn leaped to his feet, and Richard stiffened. Jerome raised his head. "I, sir, am Lord Everard's heir."
"And to that we can attest," Vaughn declared.
Caruthers kept his gaze on Jerome, and Jerome felt it like a blade to the heart. "You may attest all you like. The Everard barony can pass along the female line. The title and entailed lands belong to the former Lord Everard's daughter."
The heat Jerome had felt earlier vanished, to be replaced by a coldness that went to his soul.
Richard rose, towering over the solicitor. "What nonsense is this? Uncle never married; he has no daughter."
"I am afraid you are mistaken, Captain Everard," Caruthers replied. "Lord Everard has a daughter, the issuance of a completely legal marriage. I have seen the proof."
Jerome stared at him. "What proof? Why weren't we told?"
Caruthers shuffled the papers in front of him. "Your uncle insisted on my silence, and I felt it necessary to comply. But all is not lost. The three of you can still inherit something. As the girl's guardians, you are charged with bringing the new Lady Everard out in style."
"Bringing her out in style?" Richard's scowl deepened. "Just how old is she?"
Caruthers glanced down at the parchment. "Sixteen, if memory serves."
"Sixteen?" Vaughn protested. "That cannot be right-Uncle could never have hidden a daughter so long. And now you expect us to play chaperone like some doddering dowagers?"
The solicitor seemed only too happy to elaborate. "Your uncle expected it, sir. His will stipulates that the girl must be presented at court, accepted in all the households who refused to receive your uncle and garner no less than three offers of marriage before the Season is out."
Richard shrugged. "Easy enough. We'll all offer for her."
Caruthers eyed him, mouth twitching as he unsuccessfully tried to cover his sneer. "I do not believe you are considered suitable, Captain Everard, but that will be up to the girl's governess, Miss Adele Walcott, to determine. She is charged with monitoring the success of Lady Everard's Season."
Jerome shook his head. "This is ridiculous. Uncle loved his games. Take this proof to Doctor's Commons for probate, and you'll find he's played you for a fool."
The solicitor's grin blossomed once more. "No, Mr. Everard, I fear in this case you are the fool. Your uncle offers you a small bequest and the estate on which you and your brother were born, if you help your new cousin take her place in Society. Otherwise, sir, even your horse is forfeit."
Jerome rose then, even as Vaughn and Richard moved closer to him in front of the solicitor. "My uncle may have preferred secrecy," Jerome said, "but the College of Heralds will insist on the truth, and so will I. Show me this proof."
"All in good time," the solicitor had replied with maddening calm. "I intend to journey to Dallsten Manor in Cumberland in a few days to meet with her ladyship, retrieve the necessary papers and hold a formal reading of the will. I expect you three will want to join me."
Jerome's fist tightened on the reins now, remembering. Join Caruthers? Never. If anything, they must discover the truth first. The solicitor's story had to be a lie, a fiction designed to keep Jerome from taking control of his inheritance.
Uncle had never understood the importance of the Everard legacy, its various estates across England, the fleet of ships that plied the waters of the world. Hundreds of people-tenants, servants, staff, sailors, merchants and villagers-relied on the Everards. Uncle had delayed important decisions, shrugged off responsibility for improvements, always too busy with pursuits Jerome found purely trivial. From Jerome's point of view, his uncle had wanted only to reap what his ancestors had sown with no thought of working for the future. And he had resented Jerome's insistence on doing otherwise.
Well, Jerome had protected their dependents from his uncle's capricious moods; he would protect them from a cozening female now. If this girl and her governess wanted a fight, he was ready to give it to them.
He swung down from the saddle, a cold wind brushing his face and threatening to whip the hat from Vaughn's head.
"Watch the horses," Jerome instructed Richard as Vaughn leapt down beside him.
Richard cocked a smile but dismounted as well. "Do you expect them to be stolen out from under us?"
"At this point, nothing would surprise me," Jerome replied. With a nod to Vaughn, who adjusted his black hat to a rakish angle and fell into step beside him, he mounted the stairs to the stout oak door. Each bang of the brass knocker against the solid panel seemed to resound inside Jerome's chest.
"Are they deaf?" Vaughn asked. He reached out and tugged at the door, but it held firm. Who locked a door in the light of day in the country? Did they expect to be attacked? Or did they have something to hide?
From within came the sound of a bolt being drawn. Jerome stiffened and saw that Vaughn had done the same. The massive door swung open to reveal a tall, gangly footman with hair the color and texture of a newly thatched roof and gray livery nearly as rumpled. He eyed Jerome and Vaughn as if discovering something distasteful on the bottom of his shoe.
"May I help you?"
Jerome drew himself up, making him a few inches taller than the fellow. "Jerome Everard and company to see Miss Everard. We are her cousins."
The footman's eyes tightened in his narrow face. "Mr. Jerome Everard is not allowed entrance to this house. Good day, sirs."
And he slammed shut the door.
"They're leaving!" Samantha Everard sighed as she slumped against the frame of the schoolroom's west window.
Adele Dallsten Walcott shook her head. Most days she loved the way the wide windows that circled the tower room brought in light. The glow brightened the dark worktable where she and her charge had sat for lessons for the last ten years and she had sat as the student for years before that. The light sparkled on the creamy walls, warmed the polished wood floor and gilded the pages of the history tomes and French language books that were their texts.
Today, unfortunately, the view had proven nothing but a distraction for her sixteen-year-old charge. Samantha had run to the window the moment the first knock echoed up the stairs, and nothing Adele said could budge her.
"Of course they're leaving," she told Samantha, laying aside the improving novel they had been reading this Sunday afternoon. "I told you it had to be a mistake. There is no reason for three gentlemen to visit Dallsten Manor."
"Perhaps they're old friends of yours," Samantha said, craning her neck to see out the tower window.
Adele remembered when the knocker had sounded for her, but that was long ago, another life, it seemed sometimes. "Most of my old friends live in Evendale, and we saw them at services just this morning," she pointed out.
"Friends of Papa, then," Samantha insisted.
Adele hurt at the wistful sound of her voice. She rose and moved toward the window at last. "Your father has never sent us visitors unless he accompanied them. He and the Marquess of Widmore aren't expected until the summer recess of Parliament."
"But what about Mr. Caruthers?" Samantha asked with a wrinkle of her nose that said what she thought of the solicitor. She pressed her forehead against the glass. "Wait, what are they doing?"
Adele had tried to set an example (a lady did not stare out the window at passersby, after all), but her curiosity got the better of her, and she leaned over the padded window seat to peer out, as well.
The men stood conferring at the foot of the steps. From three stories up, she could not distinguish their features. The tallest, a red-haired giant, took the reins of their riding horses and pack horse and pulled them around the north tower. Was he heading for the stables? The leanest fellow, whose hair was hidden by a wide-brimmed hat, headed past Adele and Samantha's viewpoint to the south, and she caught a flash of light from his side. Had he just drawn a sword?
The last man climbed to the door again, disappearing from their sight, but Adele thought she could feel the force of his knock all the way up in the third-floor schoolroom.
Samantha sprang away from the window in a flurry of pale muslin. "They have come to visit!"
"Samantha." Adele's command brought the girl up short before she reached the schoolroom door. Though panic tickled the back of Adele's mind, she kept her face pleasant from long practice. "I want you to stay in the schoolroom. Do you understand?"
Samantha's pretty face scrunched up. "No. Why can't I go down to meet them?"
How could she explain without frightening the girl? Samantha still found the world new and exciting, each day a revelation. Adele had learned far more caution in her twenty-seven years. The only child of a baron, so close to the Scottish border without her father in residence, could make for a kidnapping.
Please, Lord, not Samantha! Protect us!
"Let me meet them first," Adele said. "I'm sure there's a logical explanation for their appearance here. Once I know where things stand, I'll send for you."
"Promise?" Samantha begged, those deep brown eyes wide and imploring.
Adele tucked a golden curl behind the girl's ear. "Promise."
"All right, but don't be long." Samantha wandered back to take up her position at the window. Her sigh followed Adele down the curving stair.
Adele had hoped she might find Todd in the wide, parquet-tiled entryway, but of course the space stood empty. The footman was impossible! Why had Mr. Caruthers sent him to them a week ago? They did well enough with the staff they had: Mrs. Linton, their elderly housekeeper, and her husband, their groundskeeper; Maisy and Daisy, their maids of all work; and Nate Turner, their groom.
A strong fellow like Todd might have been some help, but he was lazy, incompetent and at times disrespectful, even if his reference said he'd previously worked for the mighty Marquess of Widmore, Lord Everard's closest friend. Too bad that reference also said Todd had been chosen by Lord Everard. As he was the only servant with that honor, they couldn't discharge the fellow without her employer's approval.
Their mysterious caller certainly had more determination than the footman. His knocks continued, each one more forceful, as Adele hurried to the door. She paused only a moment to smooth her dark hair into the bun at the nape of her neck and pat down her gray lustring skirts, then pulled back the bolt and opened the door.
Their visitor looked as surprised to see her as she was to find such a gentleman at her door. He was tall and well formed, with shoulders made broader by the capes of his greatcoat and long legs, which stood firm on the stone step.
Up close, his hair was like polished mahogany, thick and wavy, cut short in the style shown in Samantha's fashion plates, though several locks swept down across a wide brow as if caressed by the breeze. His eyes were shadowed, set deep in a square-jawed face, and his mouth was wide and warm. His gaze locked with hers, and she felt suddenly light-headed.
She thought he might be furious, having been kept standing so long, but his smile was pleasant.
"Forgive us for startling you, madam," he said, sweeping her a graceful bow, "but we thought it best, given our news, to come north quickly. Allow me to introduce myself. Jerome Everard, at your service."
His baritone dripped with genteel sophistication, and she could imagine its drawl in the glittering ballrooms of London. Still, the first name meant nothing to her, and he could easily have fabricated the last to match the name of her employer.
"Welcome to Dallsten Manor, Mr. Everard," she replied with a quick dip that might pass for a curtsey. "You will not mind if I ask for some confirmation of your identity."
His mouth held just the hint of a smile. "I regret that my uncle, Lord Everard, did not have the opportunity to introduce us properly. However, I have a letter from him I can share." He stepped forward as if expecting her to move aside and let him in.
Adele held her ground and her smile, bracing one foot on the inside of the door, ready to slam it shut if needed. Could she reach Mr. Linton and his gun before this man and his companions breached the house? Did it matter? Somehow she didn't think the elderly groundskeeper would scare any of them.
As if he knew her concerns, Jerome Everard held out his arm. It was a civilized gesture, a gentleman indicating his willingness to escort a lady into the house. It spoke of kindness, of protection.
"Let me in, please," he murmured, clear blue gaze on hers. "I swear no harm will come to you."
She wanted to believe him. His manners, his smile, his attitude all said he was a gentleman.
And if he wasn't, she still had the upper hand. She knew Dallsten Manor better than anyone, every crooked passage, every family secret. If Jerome Everard wanted to cause trouble, she was ready for him.
She opened the door wider. "Certainly, Mr. Everard. Come in. Perhaps we can both find answers to our questions."
Read my take on a visit to an English county house.